Mad River Union
MANILA – Reacting to sharply-worded complaints and concerns, the county’s Planning Commission has tabled a proposal from Friends of the Dunes to add an area to its restoration and trail maintenance work.
The group’s bid to expand an existing coastal development permit was met with a wall of opposition from neighbors, critics and some commissioners at an Oct. 4 hearing.
Friends of the Dunes (FOD) is seeking to expand its trail access and restoration work to a 3.6-acre property to the south of its Humboldt Coastal Nature Center property in Manila. Planning staff told commissioners the work would be done in phases over three years and will include conservation of endangered plant habitat, removal of invasive plants and designation of two trails that would be added to an existing trail system.
The project would also include closure of what a written staff report describes as “unauthorized user-created trails,” one of several controversial elements.
During a public comment period, neighbors of FOD told commissioners that the group shouldn’t get the expansion because it hasn’t fulfilled the monitoring and reporting requirements of its current permit.
They said FOD’s invasive plant removals have destabilized dunes and one man said the group has “closed off all of our neighborhood trails.”
“To allow them to go and strip the dunes that protect us... we’re supposed to just accept that?” another neighbor said. “They’re under-handed, they’re not direct – they said ‘we want to work with the neighbors’ and they have never once approached us, or talked to us – ever.”
He added that FOD has “run amok” under its current permit.
Also among the detractors are equestrians, who are dissatisfied with what was described as a lack of notice on the timing and purpose of trail closures.
Larry Henderson, a consultant and retired engineer, said a petition was filed last year with the Planning Department to revoke FOD’s permits, with no response. He referred to a letter from Eureka attorney Allison Jackson, saying that she believes no further actions should be taken until a more thorough environmental impact analysis is done.
Longtime FOD critics Dennis Mayo and Uri Driscoll also warned against taking action. Mayo said FOD is engaged in “back room deals” to buy more property and Driscoll said the group has done vegetation removals in wetland areas it was supposed to stay out of.
Representatives of FOD acknowledged a lack of “public education” efforts and said the public comment included “a lot of misinformation and half-truths.”
They also said trails have been closed to limit habitat damage and the trails plan for the additional property will expand public access to dune areas, not reduce it.
Jess Barger, FOD’s programs manager, countered some of the accusations.
She said FOD doesn’t want to close longtime trails used by residents and the invasive plants slated for removal are “those that are found on your lawns,” out of wetland areas.
Barger also said that a locked gate on the added property will be removed and replaced with one that can be opened for horseback riding.
Commissioner Noah Levy sarcastically asked, “Why are Friends of the Dunes horrible people who hate dunes and don’t use science in your restoration planning?”
He added that “if I didn’t know something about the organization and had some dealing with you guys, I would believe that you’re just dead set on destroying those dunes and pissing off the neighbors while you’re at it.”
He then asked about the accusations of lack of monitoring and reporting.
Barger said FOD had indeed been a year late in providing photo-monitoring reports. “We’re not denying that as a small organization, we’ve had some difficulties,” she continued.
She added that the reports are available but have to be requested and “sometimes it’s hard to share information when the language being used is a little bit aggressive.”
“Something is falling apart here,” said Commissioner Ben Shepherd. He emphasized that more and better communication needs to happen between FOD and its neighbors.
Commissioner Alan Bongio pushed for expanded environmental review, saying FOD has blown off its permit compliance responsibilities.
Commissioners unanimously voted to table the permit addition to allow meetings with neighbors and an “initial study” to assess the need for a more comprehensive environmental review.